Alec Ash is an English writer and journalist living in Beijing. He is the founder of a writer’s colony called the Anthill, and the author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China. Wish Lanterns, which follows the lives of six young Chinese, is a fascinating close-up look at China’s millennials.
What was the inspiration for Wish Lanterns?
I have been fascinated by the stories and experiences of young Chinese since I first came to live in China in 2008. These ‘post 80s’ and ‘post 90s’ are totally different to their parents’ generation, and you can’t understand China’s future without understanding them. When I was learning Mandarin in Peking University from 2008-10, I wrote a blog called Six that followed six of my peers, and Wish Lanterns was conceptually a continuation of that, with the same philosophy of bringing a reader into a whole generation through six individual stories.
Is it an advantage to be writing about your own generation?
I think it’s a big advantage. I’m always a little suspicious of books and articles written about “the youth” in China by journalists in their forties and fifties – which isn’t to denigrate that, they are absolutely finding out the truth and arriving at the right insights, but I do find that it’s easier to really get to know Chinese of my generation because we’re the same age and have more in common. That means instead of just interviewing them, I can hang out with them, go to karaoke with them, and build up a fuller picture of their lives.
What was the hardest part of writing the book?
Finding the characters to write about, then slowly building up trust with them so they would let me into their lives, was at least half of the work, with the actual reporting and writing the other half. The whole process took me three years – two years of research and a year of intensive writing and rewriting. It’s hard to say which was the hardest part, but I’ve discovered it takes a lot more time and effort to write a shorter, more concise book.
What does the book title, Wish Lanterns, refer to?
I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide any symbolism. But the last scene of a book sees one of the people I follow, Xiaoxiao, setting loose one of these flying wish lanterns – better known in China as kongmingdeng – into the night sky, surrounded by thousands of other lights wished upon by other young people all around her. It was a poignant moment, and drove home for me how powerful the hopes and dreams of this generation are.
What are some of your favorite non-fiction works?
I think this is a really exciting time for literary or narrative non-fiction, and I was inspired by two recent books in particular: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which shows us everyday lives of North Koreans, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, about a slum in Mumbai and which has a really original structure and approach – reporting and telling the stories as a literary narrative – that I learnt from.
What makes your book different from others in the genre?
Like Boo, I took myself completely out of the book. A lot of China books focus on the experience of being a foreigner in China, and that can be a really useful way to be a guide for the reader as you bring the country to life. But I always felt I was the least interesting person in the room, and decided to get out of the way in the telling, largely as I was backreporting much of the story when I wasn’t in their lives. I also hope the structure and approach is original, with very short interweaving chapters that switch between perspective.
Do you think it’s possible to “do a Hessler” today?
No, because every writer is unique just as every personality is unique. I think Hessler is the best writer about contemporary China we’ve seen, and maybe the best we’ll ever see. But there are two unique things about him that are inimitable. The first is his voice, which is very direct, candid and first person. The second is the period of China’s development he covered, in the late nineties and early 2000s at the peak of the economic boom and social transformations that came with it. The story has moved on since then, and there are different ways to tell it, so instead of looking for another Hessler, I hope readers are looking for something new.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing journalism since college. My first proper article was for The Isis magazine at Oxford, about a hitchhike to Morocco I did in my first year. Then from 2008 I started contributing to blogs about China – Danwei and China Beat and my own – and from 2010 I’ve been writing as widely as I can, including for The Economist and Dissent. While writing the book I didn’t really have the time for anything else, but it was great to stretch my legs and write at longer length in a more narrative mode, which is my favourite form.
What are your writing habits?
My writing habits and discipline are pretty hard won, and there were certainly a lot of lost days on the couch in my first years (I think any young freelancer who says otherwise is bullshitting). Now I’m strict with myself about rising early, and I treat it like any other job. That said, for more creative writing I can be a bit of a night owl, and find it flows easiest in the quiet of night with a glass of scotch on my desk.
You and fellow Beijing expat Tom Pellman compiled and contributed to While We’re Here (published by Earnshaw Books in 2015), an anthology of non-fiction, fiction and poetry. How was the experience of herding so many writers?
It was a rewarding experience from start to finish, and not too much work as all of the contributions to the anthology had already appeared on our “writers colony” blog the Anthill. Any anthology (or blog) of expat writing is going to be hit and miss, but there are some real gems in it, especially David Moser on Chinese jazz and Robert Foyle-Hunwick on one of Beijing’s last bathhouses. I think it’s always worth having these stories written up and published, which might otherwise go untold.
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Wish Lanterns is published by Picador. It’s also available at Amazon.com and from other retailers.